American Culture

Honoring Langston Hughes

I first met Langston Hughes in 1990. He’d been dead some twenty-three years by then, and I was a few months shy of my twenty-first birthday. We met almost by accident.

It was January, and the country’s eyes were on football. The NFL had moved Super Bowl XXVII from Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California because Arizona had failed to make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day an official holiday. To protest Arizona’s decision, and to show support for the new holiday—and, perhaps even to show solidarity with the NFL—someone on my college campus in northwestern Pennsylvania decided to celebrate with a rally. I can’t remember how, but I wound up on the program.

I read Hughes’ poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”: 

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

To tie in to the King holiday, I added a verse of my own, how the Negro stood on the banks of the Potomac, on the steps of an American temple, and dreamed a dream of peace and justice with a preacher from Montgomery.

It was King’s day, to be sure, but for me, my big takeaway was Langston Hughes. He wrote “Rivers” when he was only nineteen, inspired by the sight of the Mississippi while on a bus trip. The poem appeared in The Crisis in 1921, and it made Hughes’ reputation almost instantly.

The Great Migration had already shifted the face of the country: Southern blacks had moved into northern cities, and possibility was palpable in the air. World War I infused everyone, particularly marginalized blacks, with a can-do attitude and renewed faith in the American dream. No where was this more evident than in Harlem, New York, which thrummed with creative energy, intellectual optimism, and wild, white-hot jazz. “In a Harlem cabaret / Six long-headed jazzers play. / A dancing girl whose eyes are bold / Lifts high a dress of silken gold,” Hughes wrote in “Jazzonia.”

W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the intellectual fathers of the Harlem Renaissance, touted the power of the “talented tenth”—the top ten percent of the black population, representing the intellectual and creative genius of the entire race, who would show the rest of the world just what that race was capable of. Hughes, too, stood at the front and center of the movement.

Born in 1902—the same year Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk—Hughes moved around a lot growing up because of divorced parents. He was raised for a while by his maternal grandmother, by family friends, and eventually by his mother and her second husband. In 1919, he lived for a while with his father in Mexico, but the two shared a troubled relationship. He continued to move around throughout the twenties, attending then dropping out of Columbia, traveling overseas, living in D.C., and then finally alighting in Harlem permanently by 1929.

During that time, he continued to publish, following up on the attention “Rivers” brought to him. A chance encounter with Vachel Lindsay provided a further boost. As legend has it, Hughes had been working as a busboy at a restaurant where Lindsay was dining, and he slipped the famous poet some of his own work. Lindsay, impressed by the “busboy poet,” proved to be an energetic advocate.

Hughes counted Walt Whitman as a major influence. Carl Sandburg, too. “By 1926, when he published his first volume of verse, The Weary Blues, he already had fused into his poetry its key technical commitment,” writes biographer Arnold Rampersad:

the music of black Americans as the prime source and expression of their cultural truths. In these blues and jazz poems, Hughes wrote a fundamentally new kind of verse—one that told of joys and sorrows, the trials and triumphs, of ordinary black folk, in the language of their typical speech and composed out of a great love of these people.

Listen to the rhythm, for instance, in “Song for a Banjo Dance”:

Shake your brown feet, honey,
Shake your brown feet, chile,
Shake your brown feet, honey,
Shake ’em swift and wil’—
Get way back, honey,
Do that rockin’ step.
Slide on over, darling.
Now! Come over
With your left.
Shake your brown feet, honey,
Shake ’em, honey chile.

“If there was a Renaissance going on in Harlem, the people on the street didn’t know it,” Hughes later said, perhaps a bit disingenuously. After all, Hughes served as the voice of the common black man and woman of those times. Compared to the formal poetics of Countee Cullen, for instance, Hughes was the poet-laureate of the street.

Consider the voice he captures in “Dressed Up”:

I had ma clothes cleaned
Just like new.
I put ’em on but
I still feels blue.

I bought a new hat,
Sho is fine,
But I wish I had back that
Old gal o’ mine.

I got new shoes,—
They don’t hurt ma feet,
But I ain’t got nobody
For to call me sweet.

Over the span of more than forty-five years, Hughes wrote poems, essays, plays, short stories, histories, and even libretti. In his later years, he also served as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. In the sixties, even as that preacher from Montgomery led the March on Washington to the banks of the Potomac, Hughes supported King’s peaceful, moderate approach. He defended King against attacks from militant blacks, Rampersad says, and he himself attacked the “obscenity and profanity in the new militant black writing” of the time.

Years after his death in 1967, Hughes even made a cameo appearance for a younger generation. In Jonathan Larson’s 1996 musical Rent, in the act-one closer “La Vie Boheme,” he appears with “Ginsberg, Dylan, Cunningham, and Cage. Lenny Bruce, Langston Hughes [and the stage].” A new generation, singing along, celebrated all things Bohemian and, in doing so, found a new excuse to rediscover Hughes’ poetry.

But it’s for his association with the Harlem Renaissance that Hughes is best remembered. The poems he wrote then swing wild with energy and resonate deeply with voice. They are, most of all, fun to read. They are a delight.

Poetry “is the human soul entire, squeezed like a lemon or a lime, drop by drop, into atomic words,” Hughes said shortly before his death. For Hughes, poetry was life.

“He wanted no definition of the poet that divorced his art from the immediacy of life,” Rampersad says.

That is why a poet can look back and know ancient rivers, because that knowledge helps him understand the now. “Each human being must live within his time,” Hughes said, “with and for his people, and within the boundaries of his country.”

Each human being must live.

4 replies »

  1. Thanks for the beautiful poetry, as well as the interesting article. I haven’t read Langston Hughes in a very long time, but I now have time to read I’ve never had before. Is there a good biography?

  2. Thank you! Langston Hughes is one of my favorite writers. I taught his short story, “Thank You, Ma’am” to many 4th and 5th graders over the years. His poems are simple enough for 10 year olds to appreciate and are layers deep for me still in my retirement. Kids’ favorite was “Motto”:

    I play it cool
    And dig all jive
    That’s the reason
    I stay alive.
    My motto,
    As I live and learn,
    Dig and be dug
    In return.

    One of my favorites: “Poem”

    I loved my friend.
    He went away from me.
    There’s nothing more to say.
    The poem ends,
    Soft as it began —
    I loved my friend.

  3. Scottie: Arnold Rampersad has a two-volume biography about Hughes that’s pretty detailed. As a scholar Rampersad is thorough and respectful without being zealous, so I would certainly recommend his work, although I have to admit I’ve not read that bio. (Rampersad has also edited and written intros to some of Hughes’ autobiographical works.) My friend Tony Medina has a children’s biography, written in verse, called “Love to Langston” that’s pretty fun.

    Pat: Thanks for sharing that piece. Outstanding!

  4. I’m just a working class self taught scholar who has developed a love for poets. My favorite poetry (and I’m picky I must confess) must emanate from a writer with a deep soul. Thanks for this article. I’m on the hunt for Langston Hughes.